Opera going south

A Peckham production of "Dido and Aeneas" is not quite bold enough

Dido and Aeneas, Bussey Building, Peckham. 7.30pm Thursday 10 January 2013

Although still more synonymous with knife-crime than culture, Peckham is enjoying something of a sea-change at the moment. Last year saw the Royal Court venture south for a series of performances in their new “Theatre Local” project, and for one night during the summer a multi-storey car-park became the unlikely stage for a remixed performance of Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Rite of Spring. The hub of the action is Peckham’s Bussey Building – a venue best-known for its raves, but now developing an alter-ego as the progressive arts venue of choice south of the river. But while the Royal Court’s brand of contemporary theatre is a major step, how much greater a leap is the venue’s latest project: 18th century opera.

In many ways Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the perfect opera for today. Tate’s English libretto may have the odd metaphorical flight of fancy, but is otherwise straightforward and easily understood, even without the help of surtitles. The themes – love and betrayal – are classics, and the whole cycle from infatuation to despair and death takes just under an hour to run its course, leaving plenty of time for a drink and debrief afterwards.

So why did I leave Opera In Space’s performance so confused?

It’s always going to a challenge performing opera in unusual spaces. I’ve attended performances over the years in warehouses, office-buildings, pubs, gardens, boats and even a nightclub, and each unusual venue only makes me more grateful for the classic opera house, with its controlled acoustics and excellent sight-lines. While the promenade elements of this Dido give everyone a fair shot at seeing at least some of the show, a directorial preference for on-floor writhings means that large chunks are completely obscured, and the traverse-style setup in the main staging area effectively prevents a third of the audience from seeing all but the merest glimpse of the action.

The concepts too are decidedly unclear, not aided by some rather gawky tableaux vivants by way of “overture”, juxtaposing bursts of African drumming with blandly symbolic stage-pictures. Spoken text is also rather unnecessarily included later in the show (which exists in that generic no-time, no-place of contemporary theatre), adding little by transforming the Carthaginian Queen and her ladies into schoolgirls chattering about their A level studies. If director Richard Pyros had a coherent vision for the piece then he kept it concealed.

Pasticcio was a favourite genre of the 18th century opera house – essentially stitching together the best bits from various composers’ works into a single dramatic work – and Opera In Space make a clever nod to this in their interpolation of jazz songs into Purcell’s score. But I would have loved to see smarter choices than the unambiguous “Misty” (in case we hadn’t realised that Dido was smitten with her charisma-free Aeneas) and Jerome Kern’s “All The Things that You Are”, which suffered from an awkward arrangement and uneasily low key.

There is much to like here though. The singing is generally solid, with the cast led by Carleen Ebbs’ polished Belinda, singing elegantly and idiomatically in ensemble with Marie Degodet (Second Woman) and Sylvia Gallant’s Dido. Gallant is at the higher end of mezzos, which lends her despairing queen a youthfulness but also a lightness that Purcell’s writing happily accommodates. Adam Kowalczyk did his best with Aeneas, but struggled to make much impression dramatically in the space of his limited music.

There is a saucily revisionist take on the Sailors’ “Come Away” that works beautifully, and some effective atmospherics for the Sorceress and her lair. But the chief delight though is the instrumental work from harpsichordist Katie de la Matter and her skeleton band. Not for nothing was Purcell the master of the ground bass (a riff, by any other name); his music has such excellent bone-structure that even when you strip away all the usual layers of colour you are still left with something beautiful, especially when stylishly articulated here by cellist Poppy Walshaw and violinist Eleanor Harrison.

It’s hard to leave Opera In Space’s Dido and Aeneas and not feel like you’ve just had an evening of cut-price Punchdrunk. The promenade setup and venue are great, and cry out for something just a little bolder, a little less politely safe. There’s an uneasy compromise here between traditionalism and experimentation which hasn’t quite found its balance. Would I return for another production? Absolutely. But on current form it may take a few more tries to make this worthy and interesting project the enjoyable experience it could so easily be.

An image from Opera in Space's "Dido and Aeneas". Credit: Sally Neville
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Commons Confidential: Hilary’s last laugh

 Benn was born into and loves the Labour Party. His was a cry of frustration. Either he enjoys the last laugh or the lachrymose coup fails.

Observing a careworn Jeremy Corbyn, you may see in his lined face his sadness about his neglected allotment in Finchley, north London, as he imagines weeds sprouting in untilled beds and aphids multiplying, untroubled by organic pesticides. If you do, you would be wrong. Corbyn is keeping his fingers green even as militant moderates plot to snatch the Labour leadership from his weakening grasp and consign Jexit to the compost heap of history.

Broad beans are this year’s bumper crop and already on the table chez Corbyn. “I planted them in October and they’re very resistant to frost,” he proudly tells visitors. “There must be ten to 20 bags’ worth left to pick.” Either Corbyn is in denial, or he was full of beans as the shadow cabinet uprooted itself.

Cider, wellies and silent discos will henceforth always evoke resignations for Tom Watson. Labour’s deputy leader was throwing shapes at Glastonbury as the Labour balloon went up. Think of Peter Mannion standing on a children’s slide for a mobile-phone signal at Stewart Pearson’s Thought Camp in The Thick of It. Watson was scheduled to replace Corbyn in the Left Field chatterati tent.

Dodging paparazzi to head back to London in his shorts, Watson confided to comrades that this episode confirmed to him that politics is a grubby business. His first act was to shower, following a weekend without washing, before trying to clear up the Labour Party’s mess.

The mass walkout from Corbyn’s top team, triggered by Hilary Benn’s sacking, was revenge for the now former shadow foreign secretary. I can reveal that Benn was reduced to tears during last year’s long reshuffle, after Jezza’s apparatchik Seumas Milne demanded guaranteed opposition to military action in Libya. Benn was born into and loves the Labour Party. His was a cry of frustration. Either he enjoys the last laugh or the lachrymose coup fails.

More tales of the wannabe prime minister Boris Johnson’s unappetising behaviour in TV make-up rooms. An artist with the blusher complained that he grabbed, uninvited, one of two cakes that she had been given as a birthday gift. He stuffed it whole into his mouth. When she finished applying the cosmetics, he snaffled the second. The Blond Ambition displayed a similar self-entitlement in championing Brexit to pursue his premiership dream.

For weirdos, every tragedy is an opportunity. Following the assassination of Jo Cox, another female Yorkshire MP received an official-looking letter purportedly from a “security consultant”, with parliamentary and Special Branch clearance, offering to review her safety. A little alarm bell sounded. He was unmasked as a Walter Mitty. The visit of two burly coppers caused him an involuntary bowel movement.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies